President Vladimir Putin likes to talk about Moscow’s plans to create new super “weapons of the future” and to show videos of how they will work (Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 23, 2020; see EDM, March 1, 8, 2018 and February 21, 26, 2019), but neither Russia’s defense industry nor its broader industrial sector is capable of maintaining existing military systems or developing the advanced weapons that the Kremlin leader promises. This gap has become especially obvious in the navy (see EDM, April 25, 2019), but it affects all aspects of the Russian military. And it is beginning to alarm military commentators, who warn that Russian ships cannot go to sea, missiles do not work, and the Air Force’s planes regularly crash (Apostrophe.ua, December 24, 2019). As such, the Kremlin’s promises of some brave new world of Russian military dominance are dangerously out of touch with reality. And while such unwarranted boasts by the military-political leadership may seem politically expedient, they are unlikely to impress outside observers for long and could push Moscow to take rash, dangerous or strategically unsupportable actions.
That is especially the case because the only sector in which the Russian military has achieved marked successes in modernization relates to nuclear weapons (Apostrophe.ua, February 23, 2020). As a result, Moscow may feel compelled to “go nuclear” if it becomes involved in a conflict that it does not see any other way out of. Thus, the inherent problems in Russia’s defense industry—which at first may appear to be a constraint—could in fact end up making the world a more dangerous place, especially if the Kremlin assumes that great breakthroughs in its military capacity are just around the corner.
Two new commentaries call attention to this problem, which runs far deeper than many in Russia or the West may have assumed. In the current issue of Sovershennno-Sekretno, Viktor Alksnis (a notorious figure in the Baltics in 1991 but now an opposition commentator and, as he points out, a former military engineer) argues that the Kremlin has failed to recognize this link between overpromising on advanced weaponry and under-delivery by the military-industrial sector. The government, Alksnis writes, is doing nothing to address these issues, preferring instead to blame shortcomings in the defense industry on traditional problems, like corruption, and new ones, like Western sanctions (Sovershennno-Sekretno, January 9). Russia will not be able to rearm the army and navy unless it has its own basic industries. And it cannot do so if it must continue to rely on imports of key components. But those critical advanced components cannot be substituted by Russian analogues if Russia lacks a domestic computer industry worthy of the name, Alksnis says. If Russia is to have a modern army and navy, it requires a revitalized industrial base. Just pouring more money into the military will not overcome that problem, however: such funds, he argues, are likely to be pocketed by corrupt functionaries.
But instead of moving to address the shortcomings of Russian arms manufacturers, the commentator continues, Putin prefers to show “cartoons” and talk about “hypersonic” weapons that terrify the Americans. What he does not say is that Russia’s own industrial base is not capable of producing these, or even more fundamental, military materiel. This gap between talk and ability to act has become most glaring in the case of the naval forces, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), although the problems of that branch also affect others, Alksnis says. It was almost impossible to field a naval group for Syria, and its lead ship—Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov—limped back to Russia accompanied by tugboats. Moreover, while undergoing retrofitting and repairs, the carrier recently suffered from yet another series of fires, and now may be headed for the scrapyard (USNI News, December 12, 2019).
Some comfort themselves with the notion that Russia does not need an aircraft carrier or that the problems of the Kuznetsov are unique to it (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 2, 2019; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, December 6, 2019). But in fact, several weeks ago, yet another ship Moscow sent to Syria also limped home, its engines no longer functional. That should not have surprised anyone: the vessel in question was built in 1968. But unless Russia changes direction soon and reestablishes basic industries, Alksnis argues, the situation will only worsen before the next time the Kremlin decides it wants to project power (Sovershennno-Sekretno, January 9).
A second Russian military observer, Maksim Mukhin, makes many of the same points but concludes even more bluntly that without a revitalization of Russia’s industrial base in general and the defense-manufacturing sector in particular, there is little chance the country will escape its current situation. “Russia has not been able to fulfill its arms program” in recent years, he points out (Apostrophe.ua, February 23). Facing this reality, the Russian government has taken two steps: It has extended the deadline for the production of military equipment, from 2020 to 2027; and it has made plans to rely on the modernization of existing weapons systems rather than the creation of new ones, whatever Putin tells the public.
Mukhin cites military observer Aleksander Kovalenko, who argued that the problems of Russian military modernization reflect not so much budgetary constraints brought on by international sanctions and the falling price of oil but rather the decay of the Russian defense industry and domestic industry more generally The country simply does not have the capacity to modernize existing forces—when it does send ships for refitting, they often stay there for years (the heavy cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, for example, has been in dry dock since 1999). Additionally, Russia is unable to quickly replace existing weapons systems with new ones. That has led to embarrassing disasters across the board. One of the most appalling is that the new generation of tanks Moscow has been talking about for almost a decade (see EDM, November 8, 2016 and February 26, 2020) cannot go into service. The reason is that the factory that was supposed to build them went bankrupt (Apostrophe.ua, February 23).
Thus, in the coming years, the failure of the domestic industrial base will mean that the Russian military will either have to fight with increasingly aging and unreliable weapons or rely on the profoundly destabilizing use of nuclear weapons if it finds itself in a conflict with a major opponent.